Salman Rushdie at Harvard

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The Indy reports on the world famous author’s recent visit to Harvard.  

Standing before a church gathering and asking people to “treat religion with the contempt it deserves” is not everyone’s cup of tea. Unless, of course, you are Salman Rushdie.

Last Monday, Cantabrigians had the chance to spend an evening with the Booker-Prize winning author, as he read excerpts from his new book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

Rushdie makes for a highly contentious figure in the part of the world from which I hail. It is rare to meet an educated Indian who takes to Rushdie’s work with little heed.

Some take a particular dislike of him as he is not one to hold back on his opinion, regardless of how offensive it may seem to others. Others still, worship him for his unflinching honesty in pointing out the illogical, irrational, and superficial. In light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre last year in Paris, for instance, Rushdie had accused institutionalized religion of being nothing but a “medieval form of unreason,” one that deserves “our fearless disrespect.” It is statements such as these that give us a glimpse of what constitutes Rushdie’s legacy (one of which I’m sure he is proud!).

His demeanor throughout the event was par excellence. When introduced as having been born a Shia Muslim in Mumbai, he had no hesitation in correcting the speaker on the spot. “Nope. Sunni. Sunni Muslim,” he said with a smile. You can trust Rushdie to express himself freely and break the false sense of propriety at the very outset. It gave listeners a sigh of relief and a gentle breather right at the beginning, most of them already finding themselves at the edge of their seats—including yours truly.

He then went on to read in an awe-inspiring style to an audience listening in utter admiration. Many in the church that evening would tell you that they wished Rushdie had read them the entire book. No reader’s voice can ever be as captivating, No one’s pauses are as perfectly timed and understanding quite is as profound as Rushdie’s was that evening.

“It was almost as beautiful an experience as a parent reading a bedtime story to their child,” said Elias Tuomaala’19, a freshman who bought a ticket to this event on his third day at Harvard.

As the reading drew to a close, eager fans lined up to ask him questions. The pitches came fast, interesting and unforgiving—while one person asked him about the Iranian death fatwa that hangs over his head, others asked him about his fascination with humor. Rushdie’s replies were as pithy as ever.

Was there a basis to Ayatollah Khomeini’s threat to him? “Fact is, I don’t care. If someone wants me dead, I’m not going to ask them if there is a basis for that,” he said with complete candor.

And of his love for humor, he said that he hated books that weren’t funny, which—given his ability to include a funny note in all his works—is entirely unsurprising. “It has got me into trouble,” he admitted to a laughing audience, “but it’s worth the risk!”

His depiction of magical realism coupled with his unfailing ability to stay in the news has earned him renown across the world. While Rushdie attended the other Cambridge (what he quipped to be “the real Cambridge, the university that is 900 years old”), last Monday confirmed that there is no dearth of his fans in any corner of the world.

He once famously said of his home country, “No people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time.” And while it is unfortunate that an Indian fan of Rushdie’s has to travel halfway across the world to catch a glimpse of the maestro, I hope there is a brighter tomorrow ahead wherein the Rushdies of the world can enter any country they wish without having fundamentalists cry foul.

But, as of now, the search for that tomorrow beckons.

Pulkit Agarwal ’19 ([email protected]) is now a proud owner of a signed copy of ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’